Reflections on ‘The Fourth Revolution’

I’ve just finished reading The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race To Reinvent The State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both from the classical liberal magazine The Economist. It’s a cavalcade of the usual arguments typical of the new right about how important liberty is, and when they are tired of pursuing the case for more liberty it becomes a case for more freedom. Freedom and liberty! Of course, it is a classical liberal view of freedom, the kind of negative liberty championed by Isaiah Berlin, in which freedom is defined as being left alone by the state (even if this becomes a freedom to starve). Theirs is a reading of a number of historical revolutions in politics that have given rise to state sovereignty, a concern to limit state sovereignty via liberalism, the (horror!) ascendence of the welfare state, and a ‘half-revolution’ carried out in the final quarter of the 20th century, the reforms of Thatcher and Reagan. Added to this are a few looks into Asian models of governance found in Singapore and China, and the various Scandiwegian post-socialist models of government.

All well and good.

What is of concern to our interests here at the Grievance Project are the ways in which Micklethwait and Wooldridge advocate for a decrease in the level of demands placed upon democracy and the state. Various special interest groups are in for a bit of finger-pointing, but more concerning for us is their conclusion that it is citizens—voters—who are most to blame for overloading the state with their concerns. The problem with democracy, they conclude, is that there is simply too much of it.

Indeed, the state as they see it is over-burdened with democratic demands. In their estimation the state attempts to respond to these concerns by trying to please everybody but, due to the public sector’s inefficiency in providing services (a natural feature of the state, apparently… better to privatise them), the state is unable to please anyone and as a result citizens lose faith in democracy. For the Western democratic state to survive the 21st century citizens must be encouraged to simply expect less from it.

Absent from the book is any mention of the fact that these concerns revisit arguments that are decades old, and most forcefully given voice in the Trilateral Commission’s reports from the 1970s in which they warned that democracy was in “crisis”—a crisis that was caused by an “excess” of democratic demands. The efficient running of the state, as ultimately conceived by all of the thinkers above, should serve as a conduit for global capitalism and little more. Welfare, whether in the form of pensions, unemployment benefits, or health care, should all be outsourced, and, wherever possible, to voluntary organisations at that. Citizens should expect very little from the state at all, and it would be better if citizens privatised their grievances accordingly. These arguments are typical of the logics of individualisation that permeate neoliberal Western democracies in which individuals are behooved to become entrepreneurs of the self, without any recourse to the state to solve their problems. Grievances must be solved, by this logic, by those burdened by them.